Julie Sherman (julieswn) Wed 7 Apr 10 15:00
Don Lattin is a freelance journalist and religion writer who appears to be hopelessly stuck in the sixties. Lattins new book is titled THE HARVARD PSYCHEDELIC CLUB How Timothy Leary, Andrew Weil, Ram Dass and Huston Smith Killed the Fifties and Ushered in a New Age for America. Its the never-before-told story of how a young and jealous Andrew Weil got Tim Leary and Richard Ram Dass Alpert kicked out of Harvard in the early 1960s. They, along with religion scholar Huston Smith, go on to lay the foundations for the social and spiritual revolution of the sixties and seventies. It came out in January and is now in its fourth printing. According to HarperCollins, it is a "national bestseller." It is been favorably reviewed in dozens of venues, including two reviews in the NY Times. Lattin is also the author of Jesus Freaks -A True Story of Murder and Madness on the Evangelical Edge(HarperOne 2007); Following Our Bliss - How the Spiritual Ideals of the Sixties Shape Our Lives Today (HarperSanFrancisco 2003); and is the co-author (with Richard Cimino) of Shopping for Faith American Religion in the New Millennium (Jossey Bass 1998)
Julie Sherman (julieswn) Thu 8 Apr 10 12:59
Leading the interview is our own <digaman>, Steve Silberman. Steve Silberman's articles on science, literature, and music have appeared in Wired, the New Yorker, GQ, Nature, Salon, the Shambhala Sun, and many other national publications. He was the co-producer of the Grateful Dead's box set "So Many Roads (1965-1995)," and co-wrote "Skeleton Key: A Dictionary for Deadheads" with David Shenk. In the 1980s, he was poet Allen Ginsberg's teaching assistant at Naropa University (naropa.edu). A long-time conference host on the WELL, Steve lives with his husband, Keith, in San Francisco. Welcome to Inkwell.vue Don and Steve!
Julie Sherman (julieswn) Tue 13 Apr 10 18:43
Steve Silberman (digaman) Tue 13 Apr 2010 (01:20 PM) It's really a pleasure to have this conversation with Don about his wonderful new book. I first came across Don's writings in the San Francisco Chronicle, I believe. I was impressed by how well and fairly he was able to write about spiritual matters in the unlikely setting of a daily newspaper. As a young aspiring journalist myself I remember thinking, "That guy has a cool beat." Welcome to the WELL, Don, we're honored by your presence. I'm a big fan of your new book, "The Harvard Psychedelic Club." As you can see in my biographical blurb above, I knew Allen Ginsberg quite well for about 20 years, so I was familiar with the cast of characters in the book and some of the more infamous stories. But what impresses me is how much of the book is fresh and new to me. Though I'm very familiar with Andrew Weil's work in alternative medicine -- in fact, he was writing a column for Wired magazine's website, HotWired, when I was the senior editor there, back in the mid-'90s -- I was completely unaware of his role in accelerating the forced departure of Tim Leary and Richard Alpert (now Ram Dass) from Harvard. You found a lot of things in your research that freshens up this history, and wove them together in a cogent and engaging way, so that even someone who feels like they "know" the Leary lore could get a lot out of reading your book. And for readers who know nothing of these stories and have never sampled psychedelics themselves, well, step through the multi-colored door of this book -- a new world awaits. Don, this week, as I'm sure you know, there's a serious scholarly conference on psychedelic use happening in San Jose, put on by the MAPS folks (http://www.maps.org/conference/). There was also an article in the NY Times the other day, which was the most-read link on the site last night (http://nyti.ms/9DhVi9), about mainstream medicine starting to take seriously again the notion that psychedelics could be useful in therapy for addiction and disorders like depression and PTSD. Obviously, this notion would not have surprised Leary and Alpert circa 1964. The surprise would have been that psychedelic research in labs stalled for more than 40 years, shut down by the authorities, at least in part in response to the events you describe in your book. I have two questions for you to start off: 1) What effect do you think the activities of Leary, Alpert, and their friends had on the course of psychedelic research in medicine? 2) What do we know now about psychedelics that we didn't know in the '60s?
Julie Sherman (julieswn) Tue 13 Apr 10 18:46
Steve Silberman (digaman) Tue 13 Apr 2010 (03:51 PM) 3) Don, after the '60s crashed into the '70s -- call it The Great Bringdown -- it became hip to say that the experiences of spiritual insight chronicled in the first part of your book had been mere illusion because they were catalyzed by drugs. Of course they weren't *real* spiritual experiences, even many former hippies seemed to agree, because instead of being brought about by meditation, or prayer, or fasting, or grace, or whirling, or a period in the wilderness -- or any of the thousand other traditional means of attaining life-transforming insight --they had been gotten "cheap," by popping a pill. Only a naive drugged-out person would compare the two, right? And yet, the more we know about the neurological basis of religious experiences, the more they seem like any other kind of experience: a product of changes in brain chemistry or neural activity. Note: That's not to say that there is no God, or no Buddha, or that profound experiences of grace or kensho are *only* blips on an EEG. But all experiences are filtered through our internal hardware and software; so why can't altering the activities of our brains also provide authentic spiritual experience? In fact, scientists have suggested that even some of the classic spiritual experiences in history-- such as the complex visual and auditory visions of the nun known as Hildegard von Bingen -- were triggered by physical conditions (Hildegard had migraines). So, nearly half a century after the Good Friday Experiment (and you might want to gloss that tale for people here who haven't yet read your book), what do you think about the authenticity of psychedelic spiritual experience?
Julie Sherman (julieswn) Wed 14 Apr 10 08:19
Don Lattin (donlattin) Wed 14 Apr 2010 (07:15 AM) Steve, thanks so much for your kind comments about my book. One of the things that has been most heartening to me as a journalist are the positive reactions from people who personally knew the four men I wrote about and tell me 1) that they thought they knew the whole story but discovered new aspects of the saga, or 2) tell me that I captured the moment. You mentioned the NY Times story earlier this week. There was also a much longer and even better story in the April edition of Playboy. There seems to be lots of interest. I've been overwhelmed by the critical response to and the media interest in "The Harvard Psychedelic Club." This is my fourth book, and I was never able to crack the NY Times. This book got TWO (mostly positive) reviews in the Times. According to HarperCollins, it has become a "national bestseller." Two other books have been published about the era this year - "Birth of Psychedelic Culture," a conversation between Ram Dass and Ralph Metzner about the days at Harvard and Millbrook, and "Orange Sunshine," a book about the Leary-inspired Brotherhood of Eternal Love, a "church" that was really a big drug smuggling ring. You mentioned the upcoming MAPS psychedelic conference in San Jose. I'll be on a panel with Ralph and Ram Dass (via video from Maui) on Saturday evening talking about our two books. The conference is sold out with more than 700 tickets sold. So, happening is happening, but we don't know what it is. Do we, Mr. Steve?
Julie Sherman (julieswn) Wed 14 Apr 10 08:22
Don Lattin (donlattin) Wed 14 Apr 2010 (07:41 AM) Huston Smith was brought into the Harvard project is assess whether the spiritual/mystical experiences that the "subjects" were having were "authentic religious experiences." Huston eventually concluded (like many of us) that the EXPERIENCES were real -- as real as the ones the mystics report -- but what was and is important is what we DO with the experience. Do they make us better people -- more humane and compassionate and less ego-centric? In the end, that's what makes them "real." That's why many people argue that there's no reason to keep taking these drugs after you are (as Jimi would say) "experienced." Or, as Alan Watts said, "Once you get the message, hang up the phone!"
Julie Sherman (julieswn) Wed 14 Apr 10 08:24
A quick note to our offsite readers...You may ask your questions of Don by emailing them to <email@example.com>
Steve Silberman (digaman) Wed 14 Apr 10 08:34
Yes, if you're not on the Well, please do send your questions. We'dlove to have you join the conversation. Thanks so much, Don. I agree with you that the proof of authentic spiritual experience is in the pudding -- in how much it changes your life and leads to more compassionate and less egocentric behavior. And isn't the same question germane to non-drug experiences of illumination? Who cares if Glenn Beck had a come-to-Jesus conversion experience if he's still a cynical liar whose words provoke needless fear, confusion, and potential violence? But that's another conversation. One of the things I enjoyed in your book was the section in which you talked about the Transcendentalist tradition in New England and how, in a way, Harvard was the perfect setting for the early days of the Leary/Alpert trip. I'd love it if you could expand on that a bit, and also talk about how San Francisco, and the Haight-Ashbury in particular (where I've lived for 30 years, as a fairly direct result of what happened here for really a very brief time circa '64-'68), were the perfect stage for the Birth of Hippie.
Mark McDonough (mcdee) Wed 14 Apr 10 08:54
I find it absolutely fascinating that the article in the New York Times was the subject of so much interest. I think it's still the #3 most emailed article today. Don, do you think that we are poised to take another look at psychedelics, or is this another "false dawn" episode in the eternal War On Some Drugs? And this to both Don and Steve, who has just brought up the issue of egocentric behavior. How do we square the idea that a psychedelic experience can be truly spiritual with the life and career of Timothy Leary who (love him or hate him) must have been one of the most egocentric people ever to walk on the face of the Earth?
Steve Silberman (digaman) Wed 14 Apr 10 09:16
Well, the history of religion suggests that religious experience and religious convictions do not automatically make you a good person. (There have been a few news items on the Catholic Church lately that could be considered relevant.) I would suggest that because most psychedelic use takes place outside of any cultural institutions at all other than the tradition of stoners turning each other on, very little cultural information is imparted with the experience, leaving the would-be psychonaut to spin around in deep space without guidance. On the other hand, if you're a Zen Buddhist and you go to your teacher and say, "I just had a flash while meditating that the whole Universe is empty, and that we are all Buddhas! I feel so blissful!" the teacher will give you advice and practices to deepen and ground that experience so it's not just a flash (or they might just whack you with the kyosaku, the Zen stick, imparting its own lesson). So I think one of the main problems with the legal war on psychedelics is that it has impaired the development of traditions that would lend the experience meaning. That's one of the reasons that I wrote a book called "Skeleton Key: A Dictionary for Deadheads" years ago with David Shenk -- I thought the culture of Grateful Dead fans was a fascinating example of an attempt to *improvise* a meaningful framework for psychedelic experience on a mass scale.
uber-muso hipster hyperbole (pjm) Wed 14 Apr 10 09:22
I am really excited about this conversation. Two writers who I have a lot of respect for.
Don Lattin (donlattin) Wed 14 Apr 10 09:27
Leary saw himself as acting out in the tradition of the Transcendentalists and Harvard's William James, the "father of American psychology." Few people seem to have picked up on the fact that the book's title "The Harvard Psychedelic Club," is a play on "The Metaphysical Club," the 2001 Louis Menand book about four other dudes from New England -- Oliver Wendell Holmes, Charles S. Peirce, John Dewey and William James. Leary loved to point to a famous line in James' 1902 philosophical masterpiece, "The Varieties of Religious Experience," in which James waxes poetic about the mystical wonders of inhaling nitrous oxide. San Francisco, of course, has its own tradition as a mecca for madmen and risk-takers, going back to the Gold Rush. It was re-discovered by many young Americans in the 1940s because it was a shipping off point in World War II. People stuck around for the post-war economic boom, which provided the space for lots of experiments, most notably in our case being the rise of the Beat scene in North Beach in the 1950s and the hippies in the Haight in the 1960s. Another reason that the psychedelic movement took root in Boston and the Bay Area are the presence of many colleges and universities and so many baby boomers (myself included) moving to those two regions in the 1960s and 1970s to go to school. Combine lots of young people, lots of money, lots of spare time, and the right drugs (especially LSD and the birth control pill) and -- presto -- you have "the Sixties."
Steve Silberman (digaman) Wed 14 Apr 10 09:34
Thanks, Don. What were some of the things you discovered in the course of writing this book that surprised you the most, and changed the way you'd been thinking about your subject?
Don Lattin (donlattin) Wed 14 Apr 10 09:36
Mark: You are right about Tim. LSD is a powerful drug, but not powerful enough to melt the ego of Timothy Leary. This is a guy who had the chutzpah to stand in front of a theater marquee in NY that read "Timothy Leary -- The Reincarnation of Jesus Christ." Talk about a messiah complex! Psychedelics can melt the ego, but also fuel those prone to grandiosity. That was def. one of Tim's problems. Time will tell if we are poised again for the Dawning of the New Age of Aquarius or another War on Drugs -- or both. I think the retirement of millions of baby boomers and the development of new designer psychedelics will lead to some pretty interesting shit.
uber-muso hipster hyperbole (pjm) Wed 14 Apr 10 09:37
Don, you need to stay on the Well after this interview. You will fit right in.
okay it's (kayo) Wed 14 Apr 10 09:42
Just casually wondering, haven't seen the book yet but plan to -- child of the 60s, have indelible memory of sitting on the floor in a small classroom with Timothy Leary and about 50 other people as he toured college campuses in must have been 69 -- anyway, back then I think the doses of LSD were very high and currently are fairly low. I'm in no position to judge the difference but am wondering if this is why there's renewed interest in using it medically, and if it is a more recreational type experience than a spiritual one these days.
Don Lattin (donlattin) Wed 14 Apr 10 09:43
Steve: The most surprising thing I discovered writing this book was not about Leary, Ram Dass, Huston or Weil. It was about myself. I kept myself out the book, especially after I re-wrote the whole thing as "narrative non-fiction." The first draft was much more "journalistic." I creep into the story a bit in the conclusion, but then go all confessional in an afterword where I write about my own ecstasies and agonies with psychedelics and other less mystical drugs. The book forced me to re-examine some of my own experiences back in the day, and I hope it will do that for other readers. In fact, I know it will. I get emails every day from people talking about just that.
okay it's (kayo) Wed 14 Apr 10 09:45
Noting that there were some posts slipping in as I posted #15, and still curious. Also curious about designer psychedelics.
Don Lattin (donlattin) Wed 14 Apr 10 09:50
Kayo: There is lots of new interest in medical and psycho-therapeutical uses of LSD and MDMD (Ectasy) -- some of it above-ground, legal and government-sponsored. I heard that the FDA has approved clinical trials to use Ecstasy on Iraqi war veterans with post traumatic stress disorder. Check out MAPS.org for all the details.
Don Lattin (donlattin) Wed 14 Apr 10 09:54
Meant to type "MDMA," not "MDMD," but that may have been a prophetic typo. By the way, can we edit posts after posting them?
Julie Sherman (julieswn) Wed 14 Apr 10 09:58
(you can scribble posts, and do them over, but you cannot edit them once they are up. To scribble, click on the blue post number and then click on scribble. Close the window and then repost)
Mark McDonough (mcdee) Wed 14 Apr 10 10:03
Don, that's an interesting point you bring up about the role of the post-war economic boom in fostering the counterculture. Also, the population of the U.S. was much smaller then. Because of the postwar migration to the burbs, many central cities were relatively under-populated (but not yet slums). The Haight during the 50s and early 60s was a good example. Also, because suburbia had not yet sprawled, if you wanted a rural retreat, you didn't have to go far or spend much. And of course, the economic boom was widely shared, so if you wanted to hang out in some place pretty, you weren't competing with the super-rich and hordes of trustafarians. Truly the psychedelic pioneers inhabited a world that was quite a bit different from our own.
Don Lattin (donlattin) Wed 14 Apr 10 10:10
Maybe. On the other hand, many of us were living on the economic edge back then. People seem to have more expectations today that they need and deserve more stuff. We need to revive on the anti-materialism ethos of the 60s -- but not until I get my I-Pad.
Steve Silberman (digaman) Wed 14 Apr 10 10:20
Mark, great to have you here as part of the conversation. Don, there's a touching moment in your book where you describe the former Richard Alpert/Ram Dass as he is now -- ten years after a devastating stroke, living in Hawaii, still articulate but with a lengthy delay between words as his brain tries to generate the language. As anyone who knew him back in the day can attest, Ram Dass was one of the world's great talkers. I once had the extreme pleasure of spending a few days with him at a camp called Creating Our Future that trained kids to become environmental activists. To be brutally honest, I wasn't inclined to approach him as a great teacher, though I enjoyed his books; but I ended up feeling like he was extremely smart and wise, a cosmic "mensch" in the same way as Allen Ginsberg, Jerry Garcia, or Robert Krulwich of RadioLab, who is happily still alive and thriving. I'm curious if you could tell us more about what Ram Dass' life is like now, and how you ended up feeling about him after you traced the arc of his life.
Don Lattin (donlattin) Wed 14 Apr 10 10:26
As Ram Dass said when I first asked him for an interview to talk about Andy Weil and Ronnie Winston (the undergraduate in their triangular Harvard relationship) : It's complicated. Gotta sign off now to go visit a dying friend. Stay tuned.
Mark McDonough (mcdee) Wed 14 Apr 10 10:31
Don, just so you know, I am roughly your age, so I remember those days. Yes, many of us were on the edge, but there was not quite as far to fall - or so it seemed.
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